Nearly 20 months before the 49ers selected him with their 2018 fifth-round draft pick, tears filled D.J. Reed’s eyes as he stepped onto the Stanford Stadium field. It was Sept. 2, 2016, Reed’s first career game with Kansas State, featuring a road matchup at No. 12-ranked Stanford.
Memories of more challenging times were still fresh.
Two years earlier, he had no Division I offers coming out of Independence High School in Bakersfield. At 5-foot-9, he was told he was too short. He walked onto Fresno State in the fall of 2014, but its coaches wouldn’t consider him for a scholarship until his junior season. He and his family couldn’t afford three more semesters of tuition, so he backtracked, signing to play for Cerritos College, a junior college located about 10 miles west of Anaheim.
Each night, he nestled in the corner of a living room floor, part of a tiny two-bedroom apartment he shared with seven teammates, as he trudged through school with the hope of transferring in a year. Reed, grounded by his faith, was confident he would play major college football. A few months into his time at Cerritos, though, he realized his situation did not immediately lend itself to an NFL future. Human nature kicked in.
“At the time, you are just thinking like, ‘Damn, is this all worth it?’” Reed said. “Like, what if you aren’t good enough? What if you are too small?’ And that’s when I started thinking to myself, ‘You could just go work or something.’ But that’s not really for me.”
All Reed needed was opportunity — and invested people who would help him find it.
The most constant presence in his life has always been his mom, Linda, who is no stranger to adversity. She overcame Stage 2 breast cancer when Reed was in middle school. Months later, Linda and her husband, Dennis, divorced, which left the void of a male presence in Reed’s life. She parented three kids—older sister, Florence and younger brother, Tyson— while working as a full-time career services advisor. She worked side jobs, whether as a nail tech or car salesperson.
During Reed’s junior year in high school, Linda reached out to We Are GAME, a non-profit organization that mentors athletes without father figures. Reed was introduced to Allen Thigpen, the president of the now 10-year-old program. They quickly connected. Allen and his wife, Joyce, communicated with Reed on a near-daily basis, providing counsel and preaching the importance of academics.
They told Reed he needed a plan B if football didn’t work out. They advised him to apply to colleges during the early months of his senior year in case the scholarship offers never came, which they didn’t. He applied to three schools, Fresno State being one of them, and his 3.2 GPA landed him a small academic scholarship, although Linda had to take out a sizable loan to afford tuition.
Reed never felt like he was given a fair chance at Fresno State. He was pegged as solely a special-teams player. And potential for playing time figured to diminish with three incoming cornerback recruits on the way.
After Reed left Fresno State in the spring of 2015, Allen connected him with a close friend, Tom Caines, the Cerritos defensive coordinator. Caines watched film of Reed and came away impressed with his explosion, whether he was breaking on a ball, high-pointing a pass, or striking someone in the open field. Caines felt those strengths compensated for Reed’s so-called physical limitations. Reed had a lifeline.
“For us, it was a no-brainer (to take him),” Caines said.
As Caines attests, JUCO programs are filled with players looking for second chances. Many times, untapped potential stays untapped because a player lacks work ethic.
After Caines first met Reed, however, he would never have to worry about attitude issues. He was outgoing and friendly — “his smile is contagious,” Caines says — but polite and obedient. Reed never asked Caines whether he would start or where he would play on the field. He describes Reed as a “look-you-in-the-eye kind of guy.”
“The guy showed up to work every day,” Caines said. “For a young guy at a community college, that’s a learned behavior for the most part. They don’t show up with that mindset already.”
Reed smiles widest when he speaks about his mother, Linda, “his everything.” He doesn’t remember her ever complaining. She attended every one of Reed’s home games at Cerritos, despite her work obligations and the two-hour drive from Bakersfield.
“You can still hear his mama yelling (in the stands),” Caines said.
Her sacrifice inspired Reed to put his head down and work. Joyce, whom Reed calls “a big part of my success,” stacked his classes so he could leave Cerritos in one year. And despite all the challenging circumstances— taking 19 credit hours in his first semester, sleeping on either the floor or a small couch in a “horrible, horrible, horrible apartment” to avoid paying rent, and rarely eating three meals a day— Reed calls his time with Cerritos a “beautiful struggle.”
Even when thoughts of quitting crept in, he remembered what he told Allen before attending Cerritos.
“I am going to humble myself,” Reed said. “I am going to go to junior college and show people I can play at (the Division I) level because I know I can.”
He did. Reed won the starting cornerback spot over two older players prior to the 2015 season. He went on to log 42 tackles, two interceptions, and three pass breakups in his lone season with Cerritos. Slowly, his Division I prospects looked more realistic.
The following spring, Caines reached out to coaches at Indiana State, a Missouri Valley Conference team with a long history of losing. They promptly offered Reed a scholarship, but he didn’t accept, expecting a higher-profile program would eventually express interest. So, Caines contacted then-Kansas State defensive coordinator Tom Hayes, a close friend of his.
Reed scheduled a visit with Kansas State. He loved the program’s tight-knit atmosphere, and he felt he would be given a chance to start — which was all he wanted. Two days after his visit, Reed was offered a scholarship.
“I already had the walk-on mentality,” Reed said. “I didn’t come into Kansas State like I am on scholarship. I worked my butt off.”
Reed, a sophomore at the time, won the starting spot over senior Cedrick Dozier ahead of the 2016 season, and everything started to fall into place.
In his first year at Kansas State, Reed led the Big 12 with 19 passes defended, the fifth-most nationally. He was named conference Defensive Newcomer of the Year. Coaches voted him as first-team all-conference, the first Kansas State cornerback to earn the honor in five years.
One season later, Reed blossomed into one of the top cornerback-returner hybrids in the country. He produced 47 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, four interceptions, nine pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. He averaged 14.9 yards per punt return and 34.2 yards per kick return, which both ranked second nationally. He was named a second-team Walter Camp All-American.
With the NFL in his sights, Reed gave up his senior season and entered April’s NFL Draft, in large part to financially support his mom.
Reed had to wait until the draft’s third day to hear his name called. The 49ers selected him with the No. 142 overall pick.
“If he’s 6-foot, he’s probably a first or second-round draft pick,” Caines said.
The 49ers drafted Reed with the idea of deploying him as a nickelback-free safety hybrid. They liked his athleticism and 32-inch wingspan.
Since OTAs and three weeks of training camp have passed, Reed admits he was initially frustrating to learn both spots because it requires extra thinking, which can slow your instincts. With time, though, he has gotten more comfortable. He views his multi-position label as an advantage because he provides value across the field. He has taken punt return reps throughout practice.
On Aug. 5, starting nickelback K’Waun Williams suffered an ankle injury that has sidelined him ever since. Reed has taken the starting in Williams’ place, showcasing his sticky coverage and ball skills.
Here's rookie DJ Reed vs Trent Taylor. Reed, the team's backup free safety, has been taking first-team reps at nickel after K'Waun Williams injured his ankle yesterday pic.twitter.com/giPnPwmrsh
— Brad Almquist (@bradalmquist13) August 6, 2018
49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has praised Reed’s “relentless” attitude and willingness to “take this opportunity and absolutely run with it.”
“(I’m) excited about where he is,” Saleh said.
He played well with the first and second-team units during last Thursday’s preseason opener. He did not allow a catch. He made 2.5 tackles in 40 snaps, showing impressive closing speed and open-field tackling — traits Caines saw three years ago on fuzzy film.
— John Chapman (@JL_Chapman) August 14, 2018
Reed has made a strong case for inclusion on the 53-man roster, though three remaining preseason games are a marathon for a rookie. He is beyond the initial elation of achieving his dream, now focusing on how he can build a professional career. After all, just three years have passed since he slept on an apartment floor.
“Even when I am tired, I try to strain,” Reed said. “That’s how you get better. I try not to be complacent.”
Reed’s fifth-round label humbles him. One of the many goals he had outlined was to be a first-round pick. That he was not adds more motivation, as if he needed any more.
One teammate who can relate: Richard Sherman, who was also a fifth-round pick before becoming a three-time first-team All-Pro. Sherman has sat next to Reed in meeting rooms and given him confidence.
“If you are a gamer,” Sherman tells Reed, “you are a gamer.”
Sherman’s more constructive life advice involves budgeting. Reed signed for a $2.77 million contract, more than enough to stabilize his mother, who now works just one job, but not enough to be frivolous.
When he declared for the draft, Reed promised his mom he would go back and earn his bachelor’s degree from Kansas State. He expects a long NFL career, which seemed unrealistic not too long ago, but he knows how quickly things can change.
“Every day you get here, it’s a blessing,” Reed said. “It can be taken away very easily. I worked hard to get here.”
Brad Almquist is KNBR’s 49ers beat writer. Follow him on Twitter @bradalmquist13.